The Food Equation: the Facts About Food Safety

Balancing our need for healthful and abundant food with the assurance that our food supply is safe.

Never before have Canadians enjoyed a food supply as safe, wholesome and varied as it is today. We are healthier and living longer than ever. Yet many consumers are still concerned about the safety of the foods we enjoy every day.

Newspapers, television shows and magazines sometimes give negative reports on food safety, but be careful before making use of this information. Seek out reliable sources when you're finding out how our food is produced.


What are the facts about agricultural chemicals?
How do they affect your health?
Are there hazards in your food?
And if so, what are they?

Food Production

The way farmers grow food has changed a lot in the last 25 years. Yet, if you were to take a close look at a farming operation today, you would be reassured that farmers take as much care in the production of your food as they ever have. After all, it's the same food supply that feeds their own families. On close examination you would find out that all agriculture chemicals. undergo extensive testing before they are registered for use. There are strict rules for use of these products. And, you would be reminded that government inspectors at the federal, provincial and municipal levels monitor the food supply to ensure that agricultural aids are used as they were intended.

Let's take a closer look at some of these food production aids - how they are used and. what safeguards are in place to protect you - the consumer.


Pesticides include herbicides for weed control, insecticides for insect control and fungicides to control molds and yeast. Some products containing pesticides include insect repellent, wood preservatives and the bactericides used in sterilizing and cleaning products. Many products used daily, such as flea collars, wall paper and disinfectants, also contain pesticides.

The sale and use of all pesticides are carefully controlled by the Pest Management Regulatory Agency of Health Canada. Before a pesticide can be used in Canada, it must undergo careful testing to ensure it is effective, its use will not endanger human health or the environment when used as directed. All such tests are reviewed by Health Canada as part of the approval process.

Each chemical undergoes as many as 100 different tests, taking up to 10 years and costing the company developing it anywhere from $60 to $100 million. Only one in 20,000 new chemicals passes all the tests and is registered for use.

After a pesticide is registered, ongoing monitoring ensures no illegal residue in food or environmental damage. New information on each pesticide is reviewed and more changes made after the new material is evaluated.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency routinely tests for the presence of chemical residues in the food supply. In 1997-98, more than 112,000 samples of domestic and imported foods were analyzed for pesticides, antibiotics, hormones and heavy metals. There were no violations in 99.6 percent of the samples. Samples that do not meet the standard can be seized or condemned so they do not enter the food chain.

Today's pesticides are used to treat specific insect, weed or disease problems and only very small amounts are required to achieve the desired results. Once used, they are broken down by micro-organisms in the soil or by other environmental factors. In this way, pesticides are biodegradable.

Defining "Natural"

Natural, does not always mean safe. Some natural pesticides are much more toxic than the synthetic pesticides currently in use. For example, nicotine is a highly toxic natural insecticide. As well, natural fertilizers are not safer than synthetic fertilizers. It can be dangerous to use animal manure as a natural fertilizer when it hasn't been completely composted. Harmful bacteria in manure can be passed on to the soil and any plants growing there.

Many people don't realize that pesticides occur naturally in plants. When under attack by insects or diseases, plants can produce their own natural pesticides.

Many of these natural pesticides in fruits and vegetables have been found to be carcinogenic when given to test animals, in large quantities. But because a varied diet contains many different fruits and vegetables, the tiny amounts of these carcinogens aren't harmful. In fact, fruits and vegetables actually decrease the risk of cancer because of their beneficial properties.

The Organic Debate

Some consumers purchase organic foods because they believe these products are safer and more nutritious. However, "organic" simply refers to a method of production, not to purity, safety or nutritional value. Extensive testing by university and government food scientists has shown no difference in nutritional quality or safety between organic produce and that grown by traditional methods. Regardless of the production method, all food must meet the same inspection and food safety standards.

Nutritional value depends on genetics, climatic conditions and maturity when picked, as well as shipping and storage conditions. Therefore, a carrot grown with commercial fertilizer will be equally rich in vitamin A as a carrot grown in an organic garden.

Animal Health Products and the Rules Governing Them

Veterinary drugs and growth hormones must undergo years of research and safety testing before they can be registered for use by Health Canada. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency continuously monitors animal health products to ensure they are used as intended.

Hormones Increase Beef Quality

Hormones are produced naturally by all plants and animals including humans. Growth promotants contain estrogen-like hormones which add to the animal's own natural hormone production. The hormones increase beef quality by directing growth towards muscle and away from fat, allowing feed to be converted more efficiently to meat.

Hormone implants are placed under the skin of the ear, an inedible part of the carcass. The pellets dissolve slowly over a period of time and add to the amount of hormone naturally present. There is no need to be concerned about hormone residues in meat as only tiny quantities remain. For example, a 100 gram (3½ oz.) serving of steak from a steer treated with growth hormones contains about 1.9 nanograms of estrogen. (A nanogram is one-billionth of a gram.) The same amount of steak from an untreated steer contains 1.2 nanograms - a difference of only 0.7 billionth of a gram! Compare this to a 100 gram (3½ oz.) serving of cabbage which can contain up to 2,400 nanograms of naturally occurring estrogen, 1200 times more than that serving of beef.

Synthetic growth hormones are not allowed to be used in raising hogs, poultry and dairy animals. However, these animals do contain natural estrogen (as do some vegetables).

Antibiotics Help Sick Animals and Protect Consumers

Antibiotics are permitted for use in cattle, pork and poultry production:

  • To treat sick animals and birds
  • To control and/or to prevent disease during times of stress
  • To promote increased feed efficiency or growth rates

Consumers have voiced concern, that people who are allergic to antibiotics and sulfa drugs may be exposed to them from residue in food. There is also concern that the use of these drugs at low doses creates drug-resistant food-borne bacteria, thus making bacterial food poisoning more difficult to treat.

In actual fact, allergic reaction from residues in food is rare and all food-borne bacteria are killed by adequate cooking, whether they are resistant to antibiotics or not.

Before any drug can be used by farmers, it must be registered with Health Canada. This process is just as strict as the one used to approve drugs for human use. Safe standards of use are set up so residues do not remain in animal tissue.

All veterinary drugs are sold with precise instructions regarding dosage and withdrawal periods written on the label. (The withdrawal period is that period of time between the last time the drug is given and the time the animal is taken to market or the food is harvested.) Proper observance of the required withdrawal period and strict penalties for producers who do not, have assured Canadians that acceptable antibiotic residue levels are maintained.

There are also safeguards in place to detect misuse of pesticides, hormones or antibiotics. Meat inspection standards in Canada are among the best in the world. Every animal that is processed in a federally licensed plant is inspected twice, both before and during the entire slaughtering process. Inspectors check the carcass and all internal organs for signs of disease and/or recent treatment. Any animals that are "suspect" are tested to determine if tissues contain chemical or drug residues and if these residues present a safety hazard to the consumer. In addition, a random residue testing program is in place for all animals. Carcasses not meeting the rigid standards are condemned.

Milk samples are taken at every farm when the bulk truck picks up a load of milk. At the dairy, the entire truck load is tested for antibiotics. If it tests positive, the truck load of milk is destroyed. The samples taken from each producer are tested and if a sample is found to be positive, the producer is penalized.

Inspectors then check the samples taken from each producer on that route and penalizes the farmer in violation.

Pasteurizer operators and dairy equipment are licensed, inspected and regularly monitored to ensure that high standards are met. Poultry hatcheries, feed plants, egg-grading stations and processing plants are also inspected by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to ensure they meet sanitation standards.

Throughout the food chain, there are many safeguards in place to ensure food is safe and of high quality. Be sure to choose meat, poultry and egg products that have been inspected and milk that has been pasteurized to ensure that level of safety.

Additives Help Keep Food Safe

When you read a package label, you are likely to see a list of unfamiliar chemical names. These food additives serve a number of purposes. For example, without the addition of preservatives to processed meats, there would not be the wide choice available today. Furthermore, processed meat would not be as safe because preservatives prevent the growth of micro-organisms which cause food-borne illness.

Additives are used in foods for:

  • Maintaining nutritional quality, such as protecting the Vitamin A that is added to margarine
  • Enhancing the keeping qualities in food
  • Preserving freshness in cereals
  • Helping in food processing, such as adding rennet to cheese and stabilizers to ice cream

Food additives are very tightly controlled by Health Canada. They must undergo constant and extensive testing to ensure they perform a useful function in food and do not pose any hazards.

Handling Food at Home

In every situation where food is grown, produced and processed, the consumer is protected by strict government regulations, except one - your kitchen. Avoiding food-borne illness is your responsibility too.

The most serious hazard in our food is the presence of harmful bacteria, such as E. coli, Salmonella or Listeria. Every year, an estimated 2.2 million cases of food-borne illness occur in Canada. This costs over $1 billion in health care costs, legal fees and lost wages. In these cases the bacteria or mold present in foods were permitted to grow to large numbers because the food was not handled and stored properly.

In order to grow, bacteria need warmth, moisture and a food source, usually a protein or carbohydrate. The danger zone in which bacteria can multiply to large numbers is between 4°C (40°F) and 60°C (140°F). Bacteria grow very slowly at cold temperatures and are destroyed by heat.

It is difficult to diagnose food-borne illness because the symptoms are often the same as the flu. Vomiting, fever, diarrhea, cramps, nausea, dizziness and headaches are common in many cases of food-borne illness. Unless several people get sick at the same time after eating the same food, it is difficult to identify the cause. Food-borne illness is serious and can lead to arthritis and food intolerance, as well as heart and kidney disease.

To Prevent Foodborne Illness in Your Kitchen

  • Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Chill leftovers as soon as possible. Put hot food directly in the refrigerator to cool. Divide large amounts of food into smaller portions so it cools more quickly in the refrigerator. Heat leftovers until hot (71°C or 160°F) before serving.
    Cross-contamination of foods can occur between raw and ready-to-eat foods. For example, a salad that will be eaten without further heating should not be prepared with the same utensils (knives, cutting boards, spoons or plates) that were used for raw meats, chicken or fish. And never put cooked meat back on the unwashed plate or platter the raw meat was carried on earlier.
  • When shopping, bag meat and poultry separately from produce. Store raw meats on the lowest shelf in the refrigerator so juices cannot drip onto foods that are ready to eat or may be eaten raw.
  • Cook all ground beef and pork to a temperature of at least 71°C (160°F) and ground poultry to 72°C (165°F); cook ground meat and poultry until the meat is no longer pink AND the juices show no pink colour. Roast poultry at a temperature of at least 150°C (325°F). Be sure to stuff it loosely and just before roasting. Do not interrupt the cooking process. Remove all stuffing from the bird before serving.
  • Cleanliness is important in all aspects of food preparation. Rinse all fruits and vegetables thoroughly before cooking or eating.

The Last Word on Keeping Food Safe

A dedicated team of farmers, government inspectors and food processors ensure that our food is safe and of the highest quality. As the last person in the team to be involved in the safety of our food, it is your responsibility to maintain that quality and thereby protect the health of those who eat it.

For more information, contact your MAFRD GO Office.

*This material produced in consultation with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Health Canada and Manitoba Health.